Preparing for Kilimanjaro Tanzania Lemosho hiking route
Selecting a Tour Operator to climb Kilimanjaro
Scheduled group or private hiking expedition?
Choice of route on Kilimanjaro?
What time of year?
How many nights to climb Kilimanjaro?
What gear to take for Kilimanjaro?
Health precautions for Kilimanjaro
Fitness for Kilimanjaro
Getting to Kilimanjaro
Travel insurance for high altitude trekking
Maps and Guidebooks
It was whilst hearing Bill Cook's story about climbing Kilimajaro a few years ago that I first had an inkling to try it myself. Then my old friend Dermot asked if I was interested to go in 2007. He did some initial research, checking the different companies and their websites, but a knee injury put paid to the idea of going in February. So we put it back to September, which gave us more time to get ourselves fit. We also found four others who are ready to give it a go. We've booked our flights, and paid up. Only a month to go before we fly to Kilimanjaro International Airport.
So, what have we learnt so far, that might be of interest to others?
First of all, access to the national park which takes in the mountain is controlled. You need to pay a fee to enter, and you need to go with recognised guides. The best way to organise all this is through a tour operator who will make the necessary arrangements.
When Dermot initially looked through different company websites he had been most impressed by the information provided on the Africa Travel Resource website. The company organises expeditions on the mountain as well as safaris, and there's lots of good practical advice on the website about the choice of routes, the best time to go, the type of equipment required and the challenge itself. The company's staff have also been only too ready to answer questions over the phone and by e-mail, as we looked into the options. So after assessing some of the other operators, we signed up with ATR.
They asked us what sort of trip we were looking for, and what sort of fitness we all had, and then tailored an itinerary to suit us. This included a few days' safari as well, to the Nogorongoro Crater and the Serengeti Plain, which are a few hours' drive west of Arusha. We thought it made sense to see a bit more of Africa rather than dashing back straight after the climb. Based on the experience we've had so far, I'd certainly recommend Africa Travel Resource to others who may be thinking about climbing Kilimanjaro.
By the time we made our booking, our group had grown as others showed interest in tackling Africa's highest mountain. A couple of possible members had to drop out, but this still left us with six who were committed to going. This meant we could consider booking a private expedition, rather than joining one of the scheduled groups.
The advantages of this are, obviously, that you are walking with people you know. Less obviously, it means you are able to set out on a different day from the scheduled treks. These normally start on a Sunday, allowing customers to set out from the UK on a Friday or Saturday, take a week to climb the mountain, and return home in time for work the following week! What this means, however, is that the flow of walkers along the recognised routes is very predictable and regular. Even if you are with a relatively small group, you are likely to see lots of other groups of hikers during the walk and at the camp sites. Whilst it's good to meet people now and then on a walk, it could ruin the sense of being somewhere special if you're part of a crowd!
So, we discussed everyone's availability, and decided on a Monday departure from the UK, with a rest day on the Tuesday, setting out on the trek on the Wednesday. This should mean we avoid the crowds.
We also had to decide which route to follow. There are around 7 recognised routes: Rongai and Marangu on the eastern side; Machame, Shira and Lemosho on the West; and Umbwe and Mwaka to the south. The eastern routes are easier than those on the west, but whilst Rongai is still a relatively quiet and attractive route to follow, Marangu is much busier. Certainly ATR had a low opinion of it, and do not offer climbs via the Marangu route.
After reading the detailed description on the ATR website, we were considering the Rongai, Shira and Lemosho routes. Each seemed to offer good scenery and medium or low volumes of traffic. After much deliberation we opted for the relatively quiet and scenic Lemosho route. Although this crosses a number of valleys which add about an extra 1000m to the climb, and there's a tricky section up the "Barranco Wall" which I'm a bit anxious about, it has the advantages of scenic variety and passes below the southern icefields, which should be impressive.
I did a bit of extra checking into the Barranco Wall, after seeing that it involves a diagonal climb up a near-vertical 300m (1000ft) wall of rock. This set my vertigo alarm bells ringing. However, I got some reassurance by checking with ATR that it's reasonably straightforward, and found another helpful website with a good photo of the wall. I checked with the website owner, now safely back in the USA, and he confirmed that it wasn't such a big deal. The altitude was more of a challenge! It's worth a read of his story of the climb and the impact of altitude sickness.
Now I've had a look at another impressive collection of photos from one of the many websites covering the climb, and there's a more disconcerting picture in the middle there of trekkers crossing what looks like a steep face of rock. Oh dear.... The other views look terrific though.
The summit of Kilimanjaro can catch some pretty ferocious storms at certain times of the year, and the lower slopes have their rainy seasons when a climb could be pretty miserable. Therefore it's well worth aiming for one of the drier, more settled seasons, which are around mid-January to mid-March, and mid-July to mid-October.
We're hoping that September 2007 turns out to be dry and sunny, with a clear sunrise from the summit!
There was also the question of how many days to spend on the climb. All the options involve several days on the way up, not strictly speaking ascending all the time, as they go up to high altitudes then come down each evening to camps at a lower level. This is to give climbers the time to adjust to the lower levels of oxygen at high altitude, reducing the effects of altitude sickness. I'd had two experiences of this already, at much lower altitudes, on Mount Fuji and El Teide (both just under 13,000 ft). On Fuji I couldn't understand why I was feeling giddy and weak towards the end of the climb, but when I went up Teide I recognised the same symptoms. On both those occasions I had dashed straight up the mountain from sea level, allowing no time for acclimatisation. To get to over 19,000 ft I could certainly see the need to take more time to adjust to the altitude.
Generally 5-night climbs are the shortest on offer (although apparently some people attempt the climb in less via the shorter Umbwe route), but we were tempted by the idea of 6 or 7 nights to increase our chances of success. We compromised on 6 nights - the advice from ATR was that a longer expedition can be counter-productive, resulting in "camping fatigue" especially for those not used to spending several nights on rough ground under canvas.
Going on a 7-day trek up a 19,000-ft mountain situated close to the Equator yet topped by glaciers requires careful consideration of what equipment is needed. And for those of us who do most of our walking on modest mountains in the UK, whilst we're aware that we need to be prepared for difficult weather conditions, it's a bit difficult to envisage what we will need for Kilimanjaro.
Again, the ATR website was very helpful, but I also found it useful to check with Bill Cook, and to speak with one of the ATR staff over the phone. They gave me what sound like invaluable tips.
For example, I thought my old Black's Icelandic down sleeping bag might be just the thing for the cold temperatures at high altitude, but I couldn't say if it was Four Seasons rating or not. Better to make sure. Apparently we're likely to be huddled up inside even the best sleeping bag, and even with the extra insulation of a silk inner bag, wearing thermals and fleeces and socks to try to keep warm! The final night on the way down, after being awake for close to 24 hours, is likely to be when we feel the coldest.
Then I thought I could get by with some plastic mineral water bottles to carry water in, as I usually do. But regular hydration is very important on the trek, and getting these bottles out of the rucsack at low temperature means removing gloves. Better to have a Platypus water bag with a tube to drink through. It could still freeze up when it gets really cold, but one tip is to blow the water back down the tube after each drink.
Apparently the porters take water off the mountain durng the trek, and boil it twice, before filling up the water bottles of the walkers. I wondered why a metal bottle was suggested on the kit list - it seems that some people use them, literally, as hot water bottles in their sleeping bags, but beware not to have the water TOO hot!
When I found out that I would have a porter to carry most of my gear (up to 15 kg) it was quite a relief as I'd just had the experience of carrying a pack with gear and food for 3 nights in Glen Affric. I thought I should use my trusty old metal-frame rucsack, but the ATR kit list suggested a soft kit bag. It turns out that the porters put these into their own packs, which they carry on their heads or their backs, so a flexible bag is much better. On arrival at the camps, the porters put the packs down on waterproof mats, for the walkers to identify and take to their tents. The stuff we need for the day's walk (food, spare clothing, camera, and lots of water) we should carry ourselves in a day pack - just like on a walk back home.
Reading the description on the ATR website about the way the trek is organised by Jim Foster at the African Walking Company, it's fascinating to contemplate how all the gear will be carried up the mountain - including ridge tents for everyone and a mess tent complete with tables and chairs and an impressive menu of foodstuffs. However, it's also a bit humbling to see that the 6 of us will be helped to reach the top by a crew of 1 leader, 2 assistant guides, a cook and 17 porters!
I had a question about sunglasses as well - and it was confirmed that these are essential because of the glare from the sun off the snow at high altitude. Ideally they should have some wrap-around protection to keep out the dust kicked up by other walkers, and the glare coming in from the sides, but a decent pair of sunglasses is a minimum. So, I'm having to get a pair of prescription sunglasses organised in a hurry.
Another necessity is a head torch. This is partly to help see the way on the final section to the summit, which starts around midnight in order to see the sun rise from the summit (we live in hope). It's even more important, of course, because we'll be spending a lot of time after dark in the camps, before getting to sleep, so we'll need them to read the latest Harry Potter book and to find our way to the bathroom! I've started researching different head torches, to find out which one can best meet all these requirements, and ended up with a Petzl TikkaPlus with 4 LED lights providing 35 lumens (for anyone who can judge what that means) at maximum power. It seems pretty neat anyway, and can be adjusted to lower settings to economise on the batteries.
Clothing has to be able to cope with high temperatures during the day, possibly wet weather at lower altitudes, and very cold weather nearer the summit and at night. So it sounds like different kinds of socks will be needed, thin shirts and micro fleeces, and shorts as well as warm trousers (will my old woollen climbing breeches fit the bill?). And I'm told a duvet jacket is just the job for sitting around the camp in the evenings after the sun goes down, as well as for the attempt on the summit. Once at the top, frost-bite is a real possibility unless we've got really good gloves (ideally a waterproof outer and thin inner glove).
Apart from the sleeping bag mentioned earlier, a good quality sleeping mat is also vital, but I am advised that the inflatable variety doesn't work at high altitude because of the low air pressure so I should just hire one of the thick mats offered by the African Walking Company, along with a decent sleeping bag.
I'm sure there will be a few more tips emerging over the next few weeks before we finally set out!
And now, the health advice. Go to your local primary health centre (i.e. where the GPs operate from) and go to the Travel Clinic. As they all check on the same database, you'll probably be told you need to be protected against typhoid, tetanus, diptheria, hepatitis A, and polio, some of which you might have already. Plus yellow fever and malaria if you are spending any time at lower altitudes where there's much more likelihood of bites from infected mosquitoes. As we've opted for an additional few days' safari in the Serengeti, I'll be getting the necessary treatment for these last two. The special prescription plus tablets for Malaria cost me £50, and the Yellow Fever jab cost another £45, and came complete with a certificate to carry with my passport!
The other health question is the big one about altitude sickness. It's likely to affect us all to some extent, and the gradual ascent may be sufficient to enable us to get to the top with no serious ill-effects. However every so often someone dies up there because they can't cope with the altitude. Lots of others have to turn back either when they reach the rim of the crater (with some distance still to go to the summit) or on the way up to it. However, there is medication which has been shown to reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness, called Diamox. It's also suggested, however, that it masks the symptoms of altitude sickness. I've read one report suggesting that half the recommended dose is just as effective, but means that you don't get tingling in your fingers! It's also a diuretic, so you need to drink even more fluid during the climb.
We've had much discussion about this, and I'm still not sure if it's worth it, but given the risk (after the experience of Fuji and Teide) I've put in an order for Diamox. If I make it to the top after taking it, I'll never know if I would have made it without, but in the other situation I'd hate to have to turn back knowing that I might have made it if I'd taken Diamox. All the same, after the recent controversy over cyclists being thrown out of the Tour de France for doping offences, it does make you wonder if you should be relying on pharmaceutical treatments to combat natural hazards like this. Life is full of ethical dilemmas!
As well as the right clothing and equipment, and maybe a dose of Diamox, the other way to make a successful ascent more likely is to be very fit. And that doesn't just mean the ability to huff and puff up Arthur's Seat on a Sunday afternoon. We're going to have to be able to keep walking uphill (mostly) and downhill (to make camp) for 7 days, which is hard on the legs and back as well as the heart and lungs. So we're all getting in some decent climbs over the summer. Ideally we ought to do some serious walking over consecutive days, and at least one member of the group has been doing so. There should be plenty of time to cover the distances over the first few days, and the porters will urge us to take is slowly to conserve energy. We're going to need it for the final long climb halfway through the 5th night!
Of course, before any of the above comes into play, it's necessary to find a way of getting to Tanzania. Probably some tour operators will offer to sort out your flights for you, but we felt we could find the most suitable deal ourselves. However, this proved to be more complicated than expected!
The closest city is Arusha, with its own airport, and some people fly there via Nairobi just across the border in Kenya. This looked like it would require bookings with more than one airline, and various assumptions about connections working out on time. Other options involved transfers in different exotic locations, and a wide variety of prices.
We eventually decided on using KLM, which has a daily flight each way with one hop from Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro International Airport (near Arusha) on the way to Dar Es Salaam, and back again. KLM also offered connections from UK airports, so we will be able to get an early morning flight from Edinburgh and arrive at Kili International at 8.00 pm, in time to be whisked to our overnight accommodation near Arusha. The total cost, including tax, was £741, which didn't seem too bad.
There was the added complication of how to make the booking when you have a loosely organised group of 6 people - to make a single booking, which requires various details to be gathered as well as a significant financial commitment up front, or to rely on everyone being able to book onto the same flights separately. In our case this was made more difficult because a couple of our group were getting in some valuable training on expeditions to different bits of the Scottish Highlands and Islands! Nevertheless everyone managed to get booked onto the same flights. I was pleased with the outcome, eventually, although it might have been easier to get the tour operator or a travel agent to sort it all out!
These days many people have insurance that covers them for unlimited trips throughout the year, but in this case it's essential that the policy is valid for high altitude trekking. There's no technical climbing involved, which is an exclusion in many policies, but it's necessary to check the details. ATR quite rightly insist on all those setting out for Kilimajaro having this cover, given the risks involved.
They offer a suitable policy themselves, and after I had found that my policy was only valid for Europe this turned out to be the best option. The cover for loss of personal valuables seemed pretty low at £350, having regard to photographic equipment, but I found my Household insurance policy had a higher level of All Risks cover which would be sufficient.
Kilimanjaro is such a well-known and popular trekking destination that there is a good choice of maps and guide books to choose from. You'll find some in most good bookshops, along with guidebooks for Tanzania as a whole. Whenever I go somewhere different I usually check the Stanfords website for suitable maps, and it came up trumps again, with a good range from which I selected the two which are illustrated on this page. The EWP Map and Guide to Kilimanjaro has a main map showing all the trekking routes at the unusual scale of 1:80,000, together with a panoramic view of the south side of the mountain, and more detailed map of the summit. The Cicerone Guide Book by Alexander Stewart is excellent, with lots of background information on planning the trek, choosing an operator and preparing for the trip, plus detailed descriptions of all the routes and the vegetation etc.
The story of the trek itself is being added now - October 2007 - with a selection of photos from each day already posted. Go back to the Tanzania page and follow links to the Lemosho Route, days 1-7. See also the Reflections story for more comments and advice on equipment, the trek itself, and the camping experience
Submitted by Andrew Llanwarne - August 2007< Back to Tanzania page for links to other stories